In all my years of teaching beginners to use their DSLR's, shooting indoor sports is a problem that I hear consistently. Whether it's that nasty yellow color cast or blurry photos, my students (and most of us!) have trouble getting quality photos in the absence of an abundance of natural light.
The running man is not your friend
I've heard time and again "I put my camera dial on the little running man and all of my photos are blurry. There must be something wrong with my camera." Not true!!
The running man works great under perfect conditions. In the absence of the perfect conditions (a lot of light being the biggest one) the running man will give you inconsistent results, ESPECIALLY indoors.
Why you ask?
The running man's goal is to get a fast shutter speed to freeze the action. But it also has to get a good exposure. In a dark-ish gym, your results will be all over the place and your photos will likely be blurry. It's not you...
manual mode is your best friend
(and psst... it isn't as hard as you think!)
Even if you don't shoot in manual mode, bear with me as I walk you through the camera settings for indoor sports. You make a few tweaks, do a little trial and error, and once you have it...you're done! You can focus on capturing the moment and not worry about whether your photo will be blurry or dark. It's like Kentucky basketball...one and done (well, maybe more like set it and forget it.)
elements of a great action shot (indoor or not)
- 1Crisp and in focus
- 2Natural color
- 3Peak action (the decisive moment)
So how do you achieve the above? Let's break it down.
freeze the action
For a crisp and in focus shot, you need to freeze the action. To freeze the action, you need a combination of the shutter speed, aperture, and ISO that will do this (this is the exposure triangle at work!) First, turn you dial to "M" for manual. Then, set your aperture as low as your lens will allow (don't go below f/2.8.) On some lenses this will be f/2.8, but on others this could be f/4 or f/5.6...this will vary from lens to lens. If you don't know how to change your aperture just google "how do I change the aperture on my <insert make/model here.> I guarantee you someone has made a quick YouTube video for your camera. Setting your aperture to its lowest number (or shooting wide open) will allow the maximum light into your camera and help isolate your subject.
Secondly, set your shutter speed to a minimum of 1/500 of a second. If you go lower, you are going to see blur in the extremities. This is your MINIMUM, try to go higher if you can. Once again, if you don't know how to do this just google your make and model and ask "How do I change the shutter speed?"
Finally, set your ISO to 800 as a starting point. Take a picture. Is it too dark? Then increase your ISO. Is it too bright? Reduce your ISO (lower number.) Likely your picture will be on the dark side. Continue to increase your ISO until you can get a properly exposed picture. This is where your camera equipment will either shine or show its age.
Shooting in manual will also prevent your flash from firing. Your flash will do nothing so don't give yourself away as a total newbie by walking around a sporting event with your flash firing. It probably isn't allowed anyway!
Before and after
My current student, Julie Winn, posted her assignment and she had several pictures that she was struggling with. She'd gone to her nephew's basketball game and her photos were blurry. You can see in the first photo, his hands and the ball are blurry. In the second photo everything is blurry (subject and the background.) We dug into the camera settings and discovered that the shutter speed was WAY too low to freeze the action. In this case, it was 1/60th of a second. My rule of thumb is always 1/500th.
I made a quick video for her explaining what you are reading in this blog post and she went back the following night making changes to her shutter speed and ISO. What a huge difference these changes made to her results! The following day her pictures were crisp and perfectly in focus. The results were dramatic but the change was simple.
does your equipment matter?
Most of the time you'll hear me say "it isn't the camera that takes the picture it is the photographer." Well, that's still true BUT...the newer the camera, the higher end the camera...the better it will handle high ISO. This is one of the first things that gets upgraded as new bodies are released every few years. So, if you are using a very old camera, this might be where you find its limit. You just have to experiment. See how far you can push it before it becomes so grainy that it is an unacceptable picture. In some cases, you just have to choose between grain and getting the shot. You have no choice.
The 3 pictures below were shot in probably the worst lighting conditions you could have in a gym. These lights put my professional camera to the test. I am not sure a 10 year old camera could have gotten any useable results...it was that bad.
As I've mentioned before, one of the biggest complaints with indoor sports is that icky yellow color that you can get inside of gyms. This is a result of the white balance being off. One simple way to reduce this is to change the white balance of your camera to "fluorescent" light. This will add a little bit of blue to the scene to offset the yellow putting it into perfect balance (thus, the name, white balance.) If you forget to change your white balance back to auto after the game, meet, or match, you'll notice all of your pictures will look a little blue. Just change your white balance back to Auto and all will be well with the world once again.
A more advanced setting is to do a custom white balance. This essentially reads the color cast in the specific room that you are shooting in and perfectly balances the colors. This is typically done with a gray or white card and varies by camera make/model. If this is something you'd like to learn to do I would recommend asking Google "how to set a custom white balance for my <camera make/model.>"
the decisive moment
Once your camera settings are set, all you need to do is wait for the peak action and be ready for it. Shooting in manual, while more work up front, frees you to look for angles, emotions, and plays that will elevate your photos from snapshot to great shot. Here is an example my friend Carolyn Emerine took of her son hitting the winning shot against a local rival. Not only did she capture the decisive moment, she also captured the emotion and excitement afterward. Her photo is perfectly in focus, well composed with beautiful natural colors. I'd say they both hit the winning shot!
Another element of a sharp shot is to not only make sure that your shutter speed is high enough to freeze the action but also to make sure that as your subject moves, so does your focus. On a Canon, this is called AI Servo, on most other cameras this is called Continuous Focus or AF-C. You'll want to make sure that this setting is turned on (I leave mine there all the time!)
Not to be confused with continuous focus, high speed continuous shooting should also be turned on. This is that sound you hear when watching golf of TV...as soon as the golfer hits the ball you hear the rapid fire of the cameras. Again, this will vary from camera to camera. On an entry level Canon you might be able to shoot 3 frames per second and on a Sony A6300 mirrorless, 10 frames per second. The number of photos you can take will vary but make sure this is turned on to give yourself the best possible chance of capturing the peak action.
If you want to remember this on the go download my free cheat sheets below, print them out, throw them in your camera bag for easy reference. I have one for indoor sports as well as four other common scenarios.
Download Your FREE Cheat Sheets!!
Confidently set your camera in any situation!!
key settings for indoor sports
Do you struggle with indoor sports? Join our Facebook community and post your pictures there. We'd love to help you out. Do you take amazing indoor photos? Show them off! Follow us on Instagram and use the hashtag #thebiggirlschool to show us your work!
Related Articles: Set Your Camera with Confidence
Andrea Ferenchik, Founder
Andrea started The Big Girl School because she loves sharing her passion of photography with other women. As a former trainer at Microsoft and current professional photographer, she has the unique ability to break down technical jargon of the camera into easy to understand language. She loves nothing more than to see her students grow and thrive in their photographic journey.
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